Google's Snowmobile Hits Swiss Slopes as Street View Faces Legal Challenge

A Google Inc. camera-equipped snowmobile is setting out to chart Swiss ski slopes on the internet even as the company’s Street View service faces a court challenge over privacy concerns.

Mountain View, California-based Google, the web’s biggest search engine, is planning to map 350 kilometers (218 miles) of downhill runs in the Swiss Alps to add to its offering of online road maps and street-level photography, the company said today in an e-mailed statement.

Switzerland’s Federal Data Protection Officer took Google to court in November 2009, arguing the company’s efforts to blur people’s faces and car registration numbers to protect their privacy on its Street View service were insufficient. Google said it made improvements, and a Federal Administrative Court hearing is scheduled for Feb. 24.

“A picture is worth a thousand words," said Daniel Luggen, a resort director in Zermatt where the snowmobile was unveiled yesterday. ‘‘This will give people a sneak preview and hopefully get them motivated to get out on the slopes.’’

Safety Concerns

The piste version of Street View won’t run into the same privacy concerns as its public-highway cousin as the slopes have to be closed off for safety reasons when the snowmobile sets out, Luggen said.

Usage of Google’s map service in Switzerland jumped 20 percent after Street View became available in the country in August 2009, Google’s Global Privacy Counsel Peter Fleischer told reporters at the company’s Zurich office.

‘‘This is the first time any country worldwide has launched legal proceedings over the legality of Street View," Fleischer said. ‘‘We give people an option to go online and blur images of their homes. In Switzerland, just a tiny portion of people have done that,'' about one in 20,000 panoramas have been blurred.

The data protection office has held talks with Google to see what could be done to improve privacy on Street View, spokesman Kosmas Tsiraktsopoulos said by telephone from the capital Bern.

“No one should have their image uploaded to the internet without giving their permission,” he said. “Now we’re waiting for the court’s decision.”

Meanwhile, Google has agreed not to upload any new Swiss pictures to Street View until the court makes a final ruling, probably in two or three months, Google spokesman Matthias Meyer said. The ski-slope version of Street View was piloted during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Canada, he said.

‘Striking a Balance’

“We don’t all live alone in caves in the forest, we’re part of society,” Fleischer said. “Data protection is always about striking a balance.”

In Zermatt at the foot of the Matterhorn, the prospect of seeing only empty slopes on Google has prompted the tourism authorities to recruit some help, resort director Luggen said.

“Empty photos can look a bit sad,” he said. “So we asked instructors to ski along in front of the snowmobile.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Leigh Baldwin in Zurich at lbaldwin3@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Angela Cullen at acullen8@bloomberg.net.

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